Tax Reform or Governance Revolution?

By Andrew Wainer*

Photo Credit: Reuniones Anuales GBM / Flickr / Creative Commons

Photo Credit: Reuniones Anuales GBM / Flickr / Creative Commons

Taxation to fund development is becoming central to U.S. foreign assistance policy, but it would be a mistake for USAID and other foreign assistance agencies to view tax reform solely through the technical lens of financing for development.  In September, USAID Assistant Administrator Alex Thier penned an article subtitled, “Why Taxes Are Better than Aid.”  This follows the announcement in July of the Addis Tax Initiative at the UN Financing for Development Conference, where the United States and other donors pledged to double the amount of technical assistance for taxation in developing nations.  By most accounts, the potential fiscal benefit of increasing taxation –“domestic resource mobilization” (DRM) in development parlance – is huge.  The World Bank and International Monetary Fund estimate that in 2012 DRM in emerging and developing nations generated a combined $7.7 trillion.  This dwarfs average annual foreign assistance outlays, which in recent years have averaged about $135 billion.  One of many examples cited by USAID is El Salvador, where a $660 million increase in annual tax revenues has been channeled to health, education, and social services, as well as other development programs.

The issues of fair and transparent taxation are often a secondary component in discussions of DRM but – as events in Guatemala and elsewhere demonstrate – can also generate revolutionary transformations in governance.   Even as U.S. agencies emphasize the technical side of DRM assistance, organizations that monitor taxation are sparking historic citizen revolutions through revelations of governmental tax corruption.

  • The UN-sponsored International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) was created in 2006 to strengthen the rule of law through “investigation of crimes committed by members of illegal security forces and clandestine security structures.” But it was CICIG’s revelations of a customs tax corruption network that brought 100,000 Guatemalans into the street in a single day.  The protests led to the forced resignation and jailing of President Pérez Molina as well as a surge in citizen engagement unseen in the country’s modern history.

The intimate link between taxation and governance should be a central factor in how the U.S. government and others think about DRM.  As the OECD states, “The payment of tax and the structure of the tax system can deeply influence the relationship between government and its citizens.”  DRM should place a high premium on the governance impact of tax reform, where appropriate.  Tax reform not only increases government revenues, but as the case of Guatemala demonstrates, it can also strike at the heart of ossified structures of governance and can spark revolutionary changes in the relationship between citizens and states.   

November 12, 2015

* Andrew Wainer is the Director of Policy Research in the Public Policy and Advocacy Department of Save the Children USA.

A New Line of Defense: Trends at Mexico’s Southern Border

By Dennis Stinchcomb

The boat to Mexico.  Photo Credit: einalem / Flickr / Creative Commons

The boat to Mexico. Photo Credit: einalem / Flickr / Creative Commons

Statistics show that the United States is relying on Mexico to do what U.S. immigration law and the Northern Triangle countries can’t: keep Central American children out of the U.S.  In 2014, the same year in which Mexico announced tightened security measures along its southern border with Guatemala and Belize, Mexican authorities deported over 18,000 children, up 117 percent from just over 8,000 the previous year, according to Mexican government figures.  A similar increase is already being registered in 2015.  During January and February of this year, deportations of minors from Mexican soil tallied over 3,200 – a 105 percent jump from the same period in 2014.  Since launching what U.S. officials have dubbed a “layered approach” to immigration enforcement, data reveal several noteworthy trends:

  • Mexico’s get-tough approach has prevented a significant number of migrants from reaching the U.S.-Mexico border. According to U.S. Customs and Border Patrol, the first seven months of Fiscal Year (FY) 2015 witnessed a 48-percent decrease in unaccompanied child apprehensions and a 35-percent decrease in family unit apprehensions along the U.S. border.  However, considered in light of the unprecedented number of deportations from Mexico, these figures suggest that child and family migration from Central America remain at historic highs. 
  • Central American children detained in Mexico are unlikely to be offered forms of humanitarian protection mandated by international law. Despite increases in child detention and deportation, a report by Georgetown University Law School’s Human Rights Institute points to inadequate screening and arbitrary detention as among the obstacles preventing tens of thousands of children from seeking and receiving relief from removal.
  • Both Mexican and U.S. data show that a growing share of child and family migrants are Guatemalan. According to analysis by the Pew Research Center, the number of Guatemalan children deported from Mexico during the first five months of FY15 doubled since the same period last year and now accounts for 60 percent of all child deportations from the country.  Meanwhile, the share of child deportees from Honduras dropped from roughly one-third to less than one-quarter, and those from El Salvador fell off slightly to just above 15 percent.  An analogous shift is also evident at the U.S.-Mexico border where Guatemalans now comprise 35 percent of unaccompanied child apprehensions compared to 25 percent during FY14.  Similarly, the proportion of Salvadoran and Honduran children has declined from roughly 25 percent each to 18 and 9 percent, respectively.
  • Smugglers and migrants are already adapting to heightened enforcement in Mexico and charting new, more dangerous routes north. Local media reports have covered migrants’ attempts to bypass border checkpoints by sea and traverse Mexico undetected on foot or in third-class buses.  Data show that successful migrants are crossing into the U.S. at less traditional and harder-to-access points.  At the height of last year’s crisis, the majority of migrants were surrendering themselves to border officials in the Rio Grande Valley along Texas’ southern-most border.  While apprehension in the Rio Grande control sector have decreased significantly this year, three sectors – Big Bend (Texas), El Paso (Texas and New Mexico), and Yuma (California) – have registered at least double-digit percent increases in both child and family apprehensions.

During Mexican President Peña Nieto’s recent visit to Washington, President Obama stated that he “very much appreciate[d] Mexico’s efforts in addressing the unaccompanied children [crisis].”  Despite applause from the White House, Mexico’s aggressive border enforcement – driven at least in part by U.S. encouragement and funding – has implications for Mexico’s already problematic human rights record.  While it is true that Mexico’s actions have largely staved off a repeat of last year’s crisis, it has yet to translate into the sort of political bargaining chip the Obama administration has hoped might sway the immigration policy debate in the U.S.  With comprehensive immigration reform legislation long dead and recent executive actions on indefinite hold, the administration apparently hopes that ramped-up enforcement will improve prospects for congressional approval of $1 billion in development assistance to the Northern Triangle.  But with Mexico’s clampdown blocking another surge of migrants into the U.S., many legislators are likely to question the prudence of pouring more money into corrupt, dysfunctional regional governments.  By backing the militarization of Mexico’s southern border, moreover, the administration is privileging political goals at the expense of humanitarian objectives and is indirectly complicit in blocking thousands of Central American children from accessing lawful forms of relief for which most are likely eligible.  Meanwhile, Mexico’s migrant extortion market continues to boom as vulnerable children and families seek new routes north at the mercy of increasingly brutal transnational networks.

June 4, 2015

CICIG: Model for Northern Triangle

By Fulton Armstrong and Héctor Silva

Photo Credit: Mike Gifford and Nicolas Raymond / Flickr / Creative Commons

Photo Credit: Mike Gifford and Nicolas Raymond / Flickr / Creative Commons

Guatemalan President Pérez Molina’s announcement two weeks ago that he would seek another two-year renewal of the Comisión Internacional Contra la Impunidad en Guatemala (CICIG) has been well received everywhere except in neighboring countries, which would benefit greatly from similar outside assistance.  A broad array of leading Guatemalans have welcomed the move, as have the UN and the United States.  U.S. Secretary of State Kerry said it “is a major step forward in the fight against organized crime … and will advance the goals of Guatemala and the United States as articulated in the Plan of the Alliance for Prosperity in the Northern Triangle.”  First created in 2007 to support prosecutions of cases involving corruption and impunity and to strengthen the country’s judicial sector through legal reforms and training, CICIG has been renewed every two years since.  Its commissioner, Colombian jurist Iván Velásquez, said CICIG “commits to the government and society to make every effort in support of Guatemala’s aspirations to consolidate institutions, to offer more analyses, to formulate proposals to strengthen institutions, to continue criminal investigations that we carry out shoulder to shoulder with the Public Ministry, and to continue building the capacity of judicial institutions.”

CICIG’s record shows that, on balance, it has made unique, positive progress to meeting Guatemala’s need for prosecution of impunity and for reform.  The Washington Office on Latin America and other key observers have given CICIG high grades because, as WOLA said in a recent report, it has provided “important investigative tools for the prosecution of organized crime … [and] helped to resolve emblematic cases of corruption and it has dismantled powerful criminal networks deeply embedded in the state.”  Daniel Wilkinson, managing director of the Americas division at Human Rights Watch, told the Guatemalan El Periódico that CICIG has “almost been a miracle.”  While it’s made some mistakes, he said, “The surprising thing is everything that CICIG has achieved in these years” in high-profile cases.  InSight Crime notes that the recent case against extortionist Byron Lima, who had suborned the head of the prison system, was impressive.  InSight Crime and others also say, however, that CICIG “has proved unable to sufficiently reform the country’s judicial system.”  InSight Crime reported that, despite its $12 million a year budget, the body is still struggling to train and foster an independent judiciary – that is, encouraging Guatemalan justice to work on its own.

Velásquez and his team will face tough challenges in the new mandate.  There are rumors that President Pérez Molina – who previously said he wouldn’t extend CICIG under the “threat of blackmail” – intends to rein the body in, and the retrial of former dictator Ríos Montt, currently projected to be in 2017, looms on the horizon as a further test of Guatemalan resolve to deal with impunity.  Nonetheless, CICIG is nearly universally seen as providing assistance that all three countries of the “Northern Triangle” of Central America need – to foment rule of law, build confidence in justice, and clean up state institutions – and it has achieved reforms when the political will was sustained.  CICIG’s status as an advisory body in support of the government has enabled it to finesse the legal and political need to fully respect sovereignty.  Honduran and Salvadoran leaders have made statements suggesting openness to the idea but, apparently for different reasons, don’t want independent investigators upsetting the applecart.  Salvadoran President Sánchez Cerén has less to fear from examination of his administration and his predecessor’s record on impunity and organized crime, but he may be concerned that a CICIG-style unit would dangerously aggravate his opponents, who retain intimidating power through many sectors.  The failure to push for CICIG to realize its full potential in Guatemala and for similar mechanisms in El Salvador and Honduras will only slow the sort of reforms the Northern Triangle needs to overcome its political, social, and economic challenges crises.

May 4, 2015

Violence and Risky Responses in El Salvador

By Héctor Silva

PresidenciaRD and US Embassy San Salvador / Flickr / Creative Commons

PresidenciaRD and US Embassy San Salvador / Flickr / Creative Commons

Salvadoran President Sánchez Cerén, facing a surge in gang-related violence, is grasping at risky solutions.  The 481 murders last month – about 16 per day – broke a 10-year record and represented a 52 percent increase over the same month in 2014.  The soaring murder rate has deep roots going back to well before Sánchez Cerén and his FMLN predecessor, President Funes, came to power in 2009, but its immediate cause is the end last year of the three-way truce between the country’s two biggest gangs – the MS13 and Barrio 18 – and the government.  Negotiated by the Funes administration in 2012, the truce provided a respite that, according to many observers, was doomed to fail because it split gang leaders, with those outside prison expanding their power, and allowed both gangs to expand their territorial control largely unfettered.  Another factor is weak leadership and low morale among public security forces, especially the National Police, which has gutted confidence among the rank and file and prompted some frustrated commanders to take matters into their own hands.  Extrajudicial executions of gang members in retaliation for the loss of police comrades have further driven up the death toll.  Observers increasingly refer to El Salvador’s current situation as a “low-intensity conflict.”

Sánchez Cerén has tried an array of sometimes contradictory tactics in response to the gang problem and the violence, creating an appearance of incoherence and ineffectiveness.  Without disputing estimates of the spiraling death toll, he has blamed the right wing and the media for creating a crisis atmosphere.  Over the past 10 months, he has attempted – and failed – to implement “community policing” strategies, which languish due to inadequate funding and planning, and he recently led several hundred thousand people in a march for “life, peace, and justice.”  With mounting pressure on the President to adopt hardline approaches, he has pledged greater resources to arm and deploy special anti-gang units, and last week he announced intent to supplement the 7,000 military troops already dedicated to law-enforcement duty with the creation of three new “Gang Cleanup Battalions.”  The government says that these 1,200 elite Army troops, strikingly reminiscent of the “Immediate Reaction Infantry Battalions” (BIRIs) that committed grave human rights abuses when deployed during the civil war, will be under civilian police control.

The President’s moves are fraught with danger.  His zigzags signal weakness to his ambitious political opponents and the gangs alike, and his political liabilities will only mount if, as almost all observers expect, the new battalions escalate the war in a manner that fuels extrajudicial killings and other human rights violations.  Criticism from advocates of dialogue with the gangs, including negotiators involved in the previous truce, further weaken him.  The fact is that the gangs, taking advantage of decades of state neglect of key sectors of society, have established strong bases of support in areas where the state’s presence and credibility are already nil or worse.  The shift toward a militarized strategy, moreover, runs counter to the tragic lessons learned in Honduras and Guatemala.  Going after the maras will entail battle in marginalized urban and rural areas that should be Sánchez Cerén’s and his FMLN party’s natural constituencies.  In a lose-lose situation, Sánchez Cerén may be opting for the surer loss.

April 23, 2015

Central American Minors: Headed Home?

By Dennis Stinchcomb and Eric Hershberg

Two young girls at the U.S. Customs and Border Protection Nogales Placement Center. Photo Credit: coolload / Flickr / Creative Commons

Last year, two young girls at the U.S. Customs and Border Protection Nogales Placement Center during the height of its operation. Photo Credit: coolload / Flickr / Creative Commons

Legislative safeguards have protected from deportation most of the 68,000 unaccompanied children (UACs), almost all of them from the Northern Triangle of Central America, who were apprehended at the southern border of the U.S. last year – but the challenges are far from over.  This temporary reprieve comes despite warnings by the Obama administration at the height of the crisis – and U.S. embassy-supported education campaigns in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras since then – that youth considering flight to the U.S. will be returned home.  Provisions of the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act (TVPRA) of 2008 have aided these Central America kids to legally remain in the U.S. by making them ineligible for expedited removal or voluntary departure until their cases are decided by an immigration court judge.  Attempts by the Department of Justice to fast track initial hearings have yet to result in expedited case closures, as judges typically issue continuances to children securing legal counsel and soliciting forms of deportation relief.  While it is still too early to predict case outcomes, several trends are evident:

  • Available data suggest that large numbers of UACs are benefiting from relief codified in U.S. immigration law, including asylum, Special Immigrant Juvenile Status (SIJS), and non-immigrant visas for victims of trafficking and other qualifying crimes. According to data from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, approval rates for asylum applications submitted by minors have hovered around 80-90 percent for the past year.  (The bulk of applications of the most recent wave of arrivals have not yet been decided.)
  • More than 7,000 child migrants have been ordered deported between October 2013 and January 2015 for failing to appear in court, but their attorneys and advocacy groups have blamed an overburdened and resource-starved court system, pointing to documented instances in which clients were never notified of their hearing date or notices arrived late or were sent to the wrong address. In other cases children have been ordered to appear in court hundreds or thousands of miles away from where they have been placed in sponsor care.  With sufficient evidence, children who have received deportation orders in absentia may file motions to reopen their cases.
  • Access to legal representation continues to impact case outcomes. In fiscal years 2012-14, 73 percent of UACs with attorneys were permitted to remain in the country, compared to just 15 percent of children without representation.  According to federal data obtained by Syracuse University, as of October 31, 2014, less than one-third of UACs in pending cases had secured an attorney.

While the fate of these Central American kids hangs in the balance, so too do the legal protections that guarantee their day in court and their access to deportation relief.  An emboldened Republican-controlled Congress has resuscitated efforts to amend the TVPRA provisions protecting these children from expeditious return to their home countries.  Similar bills still under debate by the House Judiciary Committee propose tighter restrictions on the most commonly solicited forms of relief – asylum and Special Immigrant Juvenile Status.  Asylum seekers, for example, would face shorter filling deadlines and be required to wait for hearings in a “safe” third country.  A proposed revision to the hotly contested SIJS statute allowing abused, neglected, or abandoned children to reunite with a second parent in the U.S. would have serious repercussions for Central American UACs, many of whom are in the care of parent sponsors.  Meanwhile, a steady flow of new arrivals – 12,500 UACs and 11,000 family units since last October – are added to backlogged court dockets and increase the likelihood of a due process crisis.  Observers in the region and in Washington are acknowledging gingerly the possibility of a new wave of youth migration during the coming months, as conditions fueling the exodus from Central America remain acute.  The politics of such a renewed surge are complex, and may shape both the immigration policy debate in the U.S. and the prospects for Congressional approval of the administration’s request for $1 billion in development assistance for the Alliance for Prosperity in the Northern Triangle.

March 26, 2015

Inter-American Educational Exchange: A Drop in the Bucket

By Aaron T. Bell

Photo Credit: Public Domain

Photo Credit: Public Domain

The Obama administration’s program for strengthening inter-American ties through cooperative education – “100,000 Strong in the Americas” – is now several years old and making incremental progress toward its stated goal of a multilateral exchange of 100,000 students between the United States and Latin America.

  • The latest Open Doors report from the Institute of International Education shows that the number of Latin American students studying in the United States during the 2013-14 academic year (AY) rose 8.2 percent from the previous AY to 72,318 – the largest number to date and the largest annual percentage increase in at least 15 years. Mexico and Brazil now rank ninth and tenth respectively as places of origin for foreign students in the United States.
  • The most recent data on U.S. students studying in Latin America is less promising. In the 2012-13 AY, 45,473 U.S. students studied in Latin America, the highest number to date but a smaller annual percentage increase (1.8 percent) compared to the late 2000s.

Countries’ investments in such exchanges vary widely.  Under “100,000 Strong,” figures for U.S. spending are elusive.  In early 2014 the State Department announced the creation of the Innovation Fund, partnership grants that will be awarded over the next several years to strengthen collaboration between higher education institutions – including 38 grants totaling over one million dollars last year.   Mexican President Peña Nieto has introduced Proyecta 100 Mil, which in addition to sending 100,000 students to the United States by 2018, hopes to entice 50,000 U.S. students to study at its own universities.  (U.S. students in Mexico dropped from 10,000 in 2005-06 to less than 4,000 in 2012-13 because of security concerns.)  Both countries’ financial commitment to international education pales next to that of Brazil.  President Rousseff announced last summer the renewal of its Science Without Borders program, the first phase of which cost US$1.36 billion.

These programs, universally seen as laudable, have thus far let certain countries fall through the cracks.  Vice President Joe Biden recognized in his recent New York Times editorial that “inadequate education” is one of the barriers holding back Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador, from which thousands of children have fled in recent years.  The development assistance portion of President Obama’s proposed $1 billion budget for Central American assistance is in part slated for strengthening literacy and vocational education.  Bringing Central America into the Innovation Fund program is a logical addition to the President’s efforts, yet Central American partners were notably absent in 2014.  Only one of the five grant rounds was open to Central American countries – where it arguably could have a greater national-level impact – and of the 109 recipient institutions of Innovation Fund grants, only two were from the region – and none from the Northern Triangle (Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador).  That disparity suggests that, in spite of the rhetoric, education exchange is considered a supplementary tool rather than a leading means of bolstering development in Latin America.  While the 100,000 Strong in the Americas program deserves applause as a cooperative, multilateral program, it remains an underutilized tool of U.S. engagement in much of the hemisphere.

February 16, 2015

Will Washington’s Attention to Latin America Last?

By Fulton Armstrong

Photo Credit: Prensa Presidencial Venezuela

Vice President Biden meets with Venezuelan President Maduro / Photo Credit: Prensa Presidencial Venezuela

U.S. President Obama, Vice President Biden, and Secretary of State Kerry gave Latin America increased priority in 2014, including at least two efforts to open channels to countries previously off their calling lists.  Issues combining domestic politics and foreign policy– such as immigration, Cuba, and drug policy – saw noteworthy breakthroughs.

  • President Obama’s highest profile action was his announcement in December that the United States and Cuba would normalize relations. He said he would travel to Panama in April for the Summit of the Americas – the venue of his pledge to seek a “new beginning” with Cuba in 2009 and his isolation over the Cuba issue in 2012.  Last May, his trip to Mexico and Costa Rica, where he met with Central American presidents, signaled a shift on counternarcotics strategy – downplaying militarized efforts – in response to the region’s concerns about surging violence.  His November announcement of executive measures on immigration, offering temporary legal status to millions of undocumented migrants, also steeped him in Latin America policy.
  • Vice President Biden greatly expanded his Latin America portfolio, at times as stand-in for Obama but also putting a deep imprint on policy. On an extended trip in June, he met with heads of state during the World Cup and attended a summit in Central America.  In November he participated in a followup meeting with the Honduran, Salvadoran, and Guatemalan Presidents hosted by the Inter-American Development Bank, where he announced U.S. measures to prevent another crisis involving migrant children as was seen last summer.  He met with and telephoned Latin American Presidents more than a dozen times over the year and, on the margins of Brazilian President Rousseff’s reinauguration last week, even met with Venezuelan President Maduro, with whom he agreed that it was time to restore ties.
  • Secretary Kerry traveled to the region several times – to Mexico, Panama, Peru, and Colombia – and met with Latin American Presidents and foreign ministers in Washington. Some critics judged his broad policy speeches as unexciting, but he clearly has confidence in his Latin America team, and sources say his support for the President’s initiative on Cuba was strong.

We Latin America watchers in Washington tend to complain that our region doesn’t get enough attention, but it’s clear that the Administration’s level of engagement in 2014 was deeper and more sustained than in years past.  Senior advisors at the National Security Council, Vice President’s office, and State Department – Ricardo Zúñiga, Juan González, and Assistant Secretary Roberta Jacobson, respectively – got their bosses’ to act despite the many competing demands in other regions occupying the front pages of U.S. newspapers.  Several ongoing processes promise continued senior-level attention in at least the first half of the new year.  The normalization process with Cuba could entail a visit there by Secretary Kerry, and preparations for the Summit of the Americas in Panama in April afford opportunities to give momentum to U.S. engagement – in addition to rebuilding U.S. credibility in the Summit process lost at the Summit in Cartagena in 2012.  Continued political crisis in Venezuela, nose-diving oil prices, progress in the Colombian peace talks, and the ever-evolving drug threat suggest 2015 will also be a challenging year.  For now at least, Washington’s senior team is engaged.

January 7, 2015

Executive Action, Central American Presidents and the Fate of the Unaccompanied Minors

By Eric Hershberg

Image courtesy of Center for Latin American and Latino Studies

Image courtesy of Center for Latin American and Latino Studies

Speculation abounds in Washington as to the content of the long-awaited Executive Actions that the Obama administration has promised to decree amidst the failure of Congress to enact comprehensive immigration reform.  Having resisted pressure from Latino constituents and immigrant rights advocates to act before the mid-term election, in a vain effort to protect vulnerable Democratic incumbent Senators who lost their bids for re-election anyway, the administration now seems poised to announce new measures as early as the end of this week.  Press accounts based on leaks from within the Executive Branch speculate that as many as five or six million undocumented migrants may see their vulnerability to deportation diminish as a result of the impending policy changes.  Barack Obama’s Republican antagonists are fulminating about the consequences if he makes good on his promise, with some pondering ways to shut down the government or impeach the President, and others, fearful that a particularly intemperate response could damage the Republican brand, particularly given the need to attract at least a third of the Latino vote to the candidacy of whomever is chosen as the 2016 GOP presidential candidate, allude to the likelihood of court challenges to what they deem an extreme instance of Executive overreach.

One unanticipated but welcome measure that has been announced publically is that children deemed vulnerable to the violence in the three Northern Triangle countries of Central America will be able to apply to be reunited with parents residing legally in the U.S.  This policy shift, announced during the visit to Washington last week by Presidents Otto Pérez Molina, Salvador Sánchez Ceren and Juan Orlando Hernández, is among the administration’s responses to the surge of unaccompanied minors and families across the U.S.-Mexico border over the past year or so: 68,000 unaccompanied children were detained at the border during Fiscal Year 2014.  For their part, together with Vice President Joseph Biden at the Inter-American Development Bank, on November 14 the three Central American Presidents pledged to launch an Alliance for Prosperity in the Northern Triangle, with the objective of overcoming the conditions of economic misery, social vulnerability and institutional deficiencies that propelled the wave of migration of recent years and that have the potential to motivate a renewed flow of arrivals.  Biden offered an enthusiastic endorsement, but aside from reminding those in attendance that the administration had requested $3.7 billion from the Congress in response to last summer’s “crisis,” he did not offer specific commitments of resources, which of course are unlikely to be forthcoming from the strong Republican majorities in both chambers of Congress.  Nor did the Presidents make tangible commitments to build states capable of protecting the basic rights to life chances and security that are so remarkably absent for many of their countries’ inhabitants.

Assessing the likelihood of continued surges in migration requires understanding the factors that propelled the flow of people across the border in recent years.  A newly released study* by the Center for Latin American and Latino Studies, funded by the Ford Foundation, provides essential data and analysis on the drivers of migration from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras and on the fate of children and families who have arrived in the U.S. from those countries over the past year.  A core message of the report is that the absence of fundamental pre-conditions for living their lives with dignity – education, jobs, and most of all protection from violence – compels people to migrate rather than seek to better their lot in their communities of origin.  In the long run, only dramatic reforms undertaken by Central American states will build the institutions needed to address the basic needs of their populations and to provide the minimal levels of security needed for them to live their lives in dignity at home.  Perhaps little that was agreed upon during the Presidents’ visit to Washington gives cause for great optimism, but it is our hope that the CLALS study points the way toward solutions to the region’s crisis and toward ensuring the protection of those who endured the perilous journey to the U.S. border and now find themselves in limbo in the U.S.

 *To download a free copy of the full report, click here.

November 19, 2014

El Salvador Security Challenges: Shaky Response So Far

By Héctor Silva Ávalos

Globovisión / Flickr / CC BY-NC 2.0

Globovisión / Flickr / CC BY-NC 2.0

After five and a half months in office, Salvadoran President Sánchez Cerén is still groping for ways to address the country’s pressing security concerns.  According to official figures, the homicide rate has rebounded to 11 per day – compared to five or six per day for four months last year during a gang truce sponsored by President Funes and his Security Minister, General  Munguía.  Highly unpopular among Salvadorans and despised by the United States – the key partner in security issues – the truce turned out to be the most effective homicide reduction policy since the end of the Civil War.  For Sánchez Cerén, however, the failure to renew the truce has proven to be politically toxic as violence has once again surged.  Inside sources say that the new government has engaged in a quiet dialogue with gang leaders but refuses to publicly embrace it as a mainstay of its approach to security.  Instead, Public Security Minister Benito Lara is pushing a model of community policing that has yet to prove effective and will be difficult to implement nationally.  Low morale within police ranks, the unwillingness of citizens to cooperate with police in gang-plagued territories and, as always, the lack of meaningful resources to address social investment in poor and violent communities are undermining the policy.

Two main elements of a successful approach – funding and political courage – are lacking.  Truce implementation was supposed to be followed by a comprehensive social investment program called Comunidades libres de violencia (Communities Free of Violence), but it never got funded.  Sánchez Cerén, moreover, has shown reluctance to take on the security issue.  The United States, for its part, has provided millions of dollars in assistance under its Central American Regional Security Initiative (CARSI) for vetted units of special investigators, transnational law enforcement initiatives to combat gangs, police equipment and training, and prison management, but institutional weaknesses remain acute and violence has continued to climb.  Moreover, many critics say the programs are flawed by a failure to condition aid on concrete government steps to end security forces’ impunity, corruption, and secret cooperation with organized crime.

The days in which iron-fist approaches and fanfare-hyping law enforcement activity represented a credible security strategy have passed.  Salvadoran politicians can no longer talk their way out of the security chaos by selling mano dura fantasies.  The truce under President Funes helped gang leaders consolidate their influence and hone their political skills to the point that a solution to reduce homicides without gang leaders’ imprimatur is plainly not possible.  As President, Sánchez Cerén has the opportunity to provide strong leadership, while addressing the public’s concerns, to pursue talks under clear conditions and with credible consequences for gang violations.  In return for a gang promise to reduce homicides, stop recruitment in vulnerable areas, and end gang rapes, the President could credibly offer to allow them greater sway in prisons and to support social programs in affected communities.  He can also commit to find the necessary resources.  The elites will resist paying, but a mini-summit of the three Presidents of Central America’s northern tier and U.S. Vice President Biden hosted by the Inter-American Development Bank this week affords Sánchez Cerén a chance to make a bilateral pitch for help to Biden and a multilateral pitch to the IDB.  He will have to steel himself for the political hits that will ensue, but without strong leadership, security in El Salvador will only continue to deteriorate.   The former guerrilla leader must know that there is no easy solution at hand, but as President – validated by a democratic election – he has the responsibility and holds the power to act.

November 11, 2014

El Salvador: The Maras, Community Action, and Social Exclusion

By Mario Zetino Duarte, Larissa Brioso, and Margarita Montoya

Photo Courtesy of FLACSO-El Salvador

Photo Courtesy of FLACSO-El Salvador

Maras and gangs in El Salvador have become social actors with great power in communities suffering from a high level of social exclusion. They have been linked to violence and organized crime, and they have been blamed for the highest number of homicides, organized criminal actions, and the generalized insecurity in which the country lives. They have brought a sense of isolation to the communities in which they live, as well as a reputation that increases the communities’ exclusion. According to a study being conducted in crime-ridden communities of Santa Tecla (near San Salvador) and Sonsonate (64 km. west of the capital), the maras’ power derives from their ability to cause fear and terror among inhabitants as a result of their effective and organized criminal actions. Their influence has a strong psychological impact and broad influence over people’s lives. The criminal activities of the gangs in the community are generally rejected by inhabitants because they put families at risk, make neighborhoods the target of police operations, and taint both the community and its residents socially – making it hard for people to get or keep jobs.

Nonetheless, many citizens in these communities have a positive assessment of the maras when it comes to providing important neighborhood security, due to a lack of national or local authority. In Santa Tecla and Sonsonate, the Salvadoran government, the municipality, international organizations, and other institutions have invested heavily in programs to stem the tide of mara violence, with mixed results. These communities suffer from low levels of employment, education, and social security, particularly among women. Afraid of retribution, citizens in these communities do not turn to state institutions to report crimes or to request protection, and they instead approach the maras to take actions regarding conflicts with neighbors and situations related to domestic violence. The void in institutional services, which has been permanent in some communities, is being filled by the maras and their members, making them the primary support for the local Asociaciones de Desarrollo and implementers of development plans.

Changes in the community philosophy of the National Civilian Police (PNC) in one of the communities of the study offers a useful example of how new approaches can help improve citizens’ lives. The PNC’s new approach to the community and its underlying social and security problems has also led to the evolution of the maras’ role as community actors and their legitimacy in the people’s eyes, primarily based on the fear they instill. This has benefited some communities.  Likewise, international cooperation – which has played an essential role – and the recent implementation of community policing practices as a model within the national security strategy to reduce gang criminality have driven debate on how communities can confront violence and crime in a sustained manner. The problems are far from resolved, but the gangs, the police, and the state each appear to be redefining strategies and roles. It remains to be seen whether these actions are sustainable and applicable in other territories – and whether the maras’ involvement in development programs can help create conditions for citizens to cope with the violence and social exclusion that plague their communities.

* Mario Zetino Duarte, Larissa Brioso, and Margarita Montoya are researchers at FLACSO-El Salvador.  Their study is funded by the International Development Research Centre.